This illustration is a combination of acrylic, watercolor & graphite.
Image size: 12"w x 10"h.
It was a blazing hot August afternoon at Tanglewood, the summer of 1968. I was 9 years old.
All I wanted to do was find a cool place in the shade to read my book.
Located in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, the grounds of Tanglewood are a wondrous maze of beautiful gardens all in full–bloom that time of year. Yet they didn't provide much in the way of shade.
After wondering around I found myself at the amphitheater. Later that night would be a classical music concert. I wasn't sure who was playing. My parents took me to Rhode Island Philharmonic concerts almost every month. It was okay, but not my favorite thing to do.
The amphitheater was dim and cool. I went more than halfway to the stage and parked myself under a spotlight. There were about half dozen people on the stage in a huddle. I assumed they were stagehands.
A man with a wild head of gray hair, a grey sweatshirt, sneakers and jeans appeared to be their boss.
Suddenly I noticed they'd stopped talking and were looking at me. I held up my book and pointed as if to ask "just looking for a place to read."
The man with gray hair smiled and nodded his approval. They resumed their chat and I was happily reading, feeling like I'd just scored an awesome place to hang.
The man with gray hair must have gone out and came around the backside of me. "What are you reading?" he asked.
A little startled, I showed him the cover. "It's Shakespeare, A Mid Summer's Night Dream."
He asked how old I was. "Aren't you a bit young for that?"
"Once you get used to how they talk, well, I get the humor."
We laughed. The man asked where I was from and general chit–chat stuff. He asked if I was looking forward to the concert that night. I said yes, but he sensed my general lack of enthusiasm.
"Do you get bored at these concerts?" he asked.
"The music is nice but it's just so boring to look at, all black, white and gray. It just doesn't seem to match the music. I like art, so I came up with my own way of dealing with that." He seemed quite interested so I continued.
"I imagine that all the instruments have a color. String instruments are yellows, reds and orange.
Horns are blue. For some reason I see the drum section as purple. They all dance and move to the music. It helps a lot."
He chuckled in wholehearted agreement, his wild head of gray hair flying about. "Stay as long as you like. Enjoy the concert." I thanked him and we said our goodbyes. I read for a while longer before returning to get ready for the concert.
Even though our seats were out on the lawn, we went to the back of the amphitheater to watch the orchestra take the stage. That's when I discovered who the gray haired man was, only this time he was in a tuxedo. He was the conductor Leonard Bernstein.
I had no idea what a big deal he was in the world of music. I was 9. It was neat experience. He was a really nice man. The only person I had ever told of my concert color theories.
Life when on and I soon forgot the whole thing. Until 22 years later when I awoke with the memory of that experience clear as the day it happened.
How odd, I thought, something from so long ago, so fresh in my mind. It stuck with me all day.
Later that night while watching the evening news I found out why. Leonard Bernstein had passed away the night before.
It stunned me. I wondered: Did he brush past me on the way out of town? A jolt of energy ran through me.
In that moment I had a vision of a very happy Bernstein in his grey sweatshirt conducting an orchestra full of dancing colors. I tucked that image away with the memory of a kind man I had met so long ago.
It would take another 24 years for the opportunity to bring that image to Earth, as a submission to the "Visual Rhythms" exhibit at the Warwick Museum of Art. A show meant to feature works that express music, there could only be one choice.
All total, "My Conversation with Bernstein" was 46 years in the making. Its style is far outside of my usual comfort zone. How to accomplish this kept me awake for weeks. It was most persistent, seemingly wanting to come forth one way or another. RIP Leonard.
POSTSCRIPT: I later discovered that Leonard Bernstein, as well as many other artists and performers, have what is called "Synesthesia," the ability to see colors and movement when they hear musical tones.
"Synesthetes" (as people who have this are called) also have the ability to memorize names and telephone numbers, do mental arithmetic, and more complex creative activities like producing visual art, music and theater. Fascinating.